DISSERTATION: Creative Check-In

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, game jams, Process Writing

In tracking my creative work closely, I am learning a lot about myself and how I work. I hope that eventually that data can be generalized to others, although that’s not my goal. At the very least, I can propose hypotheses. Here are some thoughts.

1. Most importantly, the more stressed and unwell that I am, the harder it is to feel able to do creative work, both in terms of scheduling and prioritizing it, and actually accomplishing it when I finally do sit down to work.

In December, I opened and looked at my script a good half a dozen times, but I was stuck. I was too worried about other things (primarily, things related to Tom’s work situation and precarity). While being busy has gotten in the way of my creative work in the past, finding the time to get down to work was always the challenge.

2. Enjoyable, challenging work balanced with breaks and personal time can be fulfilling fuel.

Sure, I am now adjusting to teaching for the first time and managing other commitments that I have made (opportunities to publish, to edit/give feedback to others on their work, to collaborate on design projects), but I enjoy that work for the most part. It affirms (in most cases) my confidence in my own abilities, even though I may have the occasional doubt. Doing work that shows me my own capabilities helps me fight impostor syndrome!

But I also definitely need to build in more breaks and rest into my schedule. Yes, sometimes that means choosing between taking the time to cook a larger (time-consumption-wise), healthier, homecooked meal or eating something fast. It’s a balancing act. I also still need to find ways to fit more exercise into my schedule. But it also means actually taking a break and actually letting myself do nothing, take naps, stay at home, and, y’know, read a book, play a video game, regardless of whether there are chores that are left undone for a while longer. I am trying to get better at balancing all of this. I suspect it’s something that I’ll struggle with for the rest of my life, especially with my tendency to overcommit (which is prized and encouraged because it makes me so *productive*).

As an example of how skewed these priorities can get, I finally managed to make myself a doctor’s appointment and attended it to deal with some issues that I had started investigating in Fort McMurray. I had to cancel my Fort McMurray appointments when we moved here, and I only got a Quebec health care card in early November. So, yeah, it feels good to have those balls rolling.

3. Recognizing and naming burnout, and taking as much of a break as you can from the things burning you out seems crucial.

I feel like I keep having these mini-burnouts — I have the evidence of them and their mounting severity every time I write one of these posts. I’m not an expert on this by any means, but after not even attempting to work on my dissertation project for the past few weeks, I have felt able to do creative work and I find myself excited to work on my dissertation project once more.

4. It is easier for me to work with someone else. I find it easier to get past blocks and prioritize working when I’m working with at least one other person. This is born out by how many solo projects I’ve released versus how many team projects, I think. At least right now, having a lot of creative control is important to me, so I like working in small groups on all aspects of the game. Maybe that will change with experience.

I’m also trying to get better at asking for help (even with individual projects) and letting other people take over tasks in groups that I’m working with. One of my problems is feeling like if I ask for something, I’m being a pest or taking up other people’s time, but I think I am fairly generous with my own time, so I am trying to ask for help in ways that I feel are fair and respect people’s boundaries.

Speaking of that creative work, I participated in Global Game Jam 2019 with Squinky this year. We decided to scope really small and made a queer dressup game called “Mx. Dressup: Squinky and Jeka’s Outfit Creator for Dapper Queer Millennials”, which you can play here: https://squinky.github.io/mxdressup/

Squinky and I designed the game together, then Squinky focused on the programming and I focused on the art assets. Taking a whole weekend just to draw cute clothes was so relaxing. I gave myself permission not to think about anything else. We scoped small, so whatever assets I was able to get done, that was what went into the game. It was really, really nice.

And now, as an extra surprise, my brother is in town, and Tom is teaching him to drive (with the occasional backseat help from me — I can’t be the accompanying driver because I’m probationary, but I am allowed in the car, so I can give a different perspective and whatnot).

That also means that my brother and I are doing our best to get Icosahedral (which is a working title) into fully playtestable shape, as final as we can get it. We’ve been working on the project off and on since April 2017, which is pretty amazing. We’ve already done some playtesting with an earlier version and it went really well. But now, it’s time to think about the numbers and whether other people can run it, and the usual business of playtesting. It feels great to be back at it! I think we’ll have a playtestable version ready real soon, and I’ll be sending out calls for playtesters.

Time, scheduling and how busy I am is always a concern, but I am doing my best not to worry about the dissertation project. I feel like my thoughts about it have slowly matured inside of me, and I am excited to get back to it. That’s far different from feeling like I was banging my head against the wall in December and early January trying to get something done. I will be trying to prioritize working on it more now that I’ve had the chance to get used to my new schedule a bit. Of course, Tom’s situation could throw all of my plans out the window at any moment (yikes).

Now then, here’s hoping I can manage to make more progress on my second dissertation project!


autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, game jams, Process Writing, research

Using Exercise 5.6 from Heewon Chang’s Autoethnography as Method (“List five artifacts, in order of importance, that represent your culture and briefly describe what each artifact represents. Select one and expound on the cultural meaning of this article in your life.”) as a prompt, I’m going to talk about my history with artefacts of design. I already wrote about my “artefacts of play” here [https://tag.hexagram.ca/jekagames/autoethnography-personal-memory-data-collection-exercise-5-6-artefacts-play/].

Of course, neither of these lists are exhaustive. In the artefacts of play list, for example, board games are notably absent, and I’ve spent many hours playing games like Battlestar Galactica or Betrayal at House on the Hill with friends. I may later try to do some kind of reconstructive timeline work to supplement them.

These lists are also deeply personal, despite the fact that I belong to a community at TAG and a broader “community.” It’s just overwhelming to try and pick out five canon artefacts. That’s because, let’s face it, everyone plays or has played in their life. It’s part of our development. And while maybe not everyone has “officially” designed a game, whatever that means, designing and adapting games and play is also a part of childhood play. So, with that said, here are my 5 Artefacts of Game Design, or, five important tools and influences on my game design process:


Especially when working from a pre-determined theme, mapping out my ideas and writing things down on paper in a spatially-organized way has always been an effective way of coming up with a game for me. It also makes it much easier to retrace my lines of thought later. This is a very important design tool for me.

*Game Jams/Rapid Prototyping
Looking at the roughly 30 games and game prototypes that I have made since January 2013, fully 21 originally started out as part of a rapid prototyping session (7 of them, with the first version made in less than a week) or as a game jam project (14 of them, with the first version usually made in 48 hours or less), whether later refined and reworked or otherwise. Having a playable version to refine and work with has been a key tool for me. It also helps me to discard what isn’t working before I have invested a lot of energy into it.

When I was studying creative writing, I was always more of a “short story” writer than a novelist or someone who wanted to sustain a long term project. I generally prefer to focus on one or two themes and ideas in a project, which I think is true of my game-making practice as well. I think that I can sustain longer term projects if I want — I have a current collaborative project that I have been working on for well over a year, and several other projects that took about six months of sustained work. But I haven’t yet found a project that I wanted to expand enough to make it into a single focus.

*Google Search Engine
The first game-making tool that I used (other than when someone else programmed my first video game ever during Global Game Jam 2013 in Unity) was Stencyl. From there, I moved on to Construct 2, then did a bit of Unity, and then learned Processing, then Phaser and some JavaScript, and now, I’m developping in JavaScript with whichever libraries are necessary to the project, and Unity once again for 3D projects (I’m not big on 3D for 3D’s sake at the moment — heck, I still need to learn how to make textures and align them). But, through it all, (and I normally use Duck Duck Go if I can help it), googling my problems has been a constant. I’d say that roughly half of my time spent programming is looking up code and figuring out how to make things work. Luckily, I’m very good at picking the right search engine terms. I would not have been able to develop games without a cracking good search engine as a resource.

*Duct Tape
Duct Tape is meant to represent two artistic practices for me — the first is “Making the most tin-foil, duct-tape version of a thing quickly” to test out concepts, and the other is how crafting and making physical objects is a core part of many of my games. I have always been a person who makes things. I enjoy prop-making, costume-making, sewing, sculpting, building structures, painting, drawing…

Luckily, I have been able to use these skills as part of my game-making practice with alternative controls. It’s been very useful to know about the materiality of things.

*The Desks of TAG Lab
I couldn’t think of an object that represented the role of collaborators in my process. Over the years, I’ve worked with many people in small teams (usually just 2-3 people) to make all sorts of projects. I’m very grateful to my collaborators — and each is listed on my games’ page next to the game(s) that we made together. I work best when I have other people to bounce ideas off of — and this is true even for my solo work. The reason I chose the Desks of TAG Lab as an artefact is because just sitting in the lab, amongst other people working, can lead to all sorts of conversations or collaborations, and the folk sitting there are usually willing to stop by for a quick chat, or, in the case of the talented programmers in the room, help me to answer particularly thorny coding questions. Even when working alone, talking about my work to others is very helpful. This is definitely a very important aspect of my process. Of my 30-ish projects, just 13 are solo endeavours.


So, a fair few of these objects are abstracted, or are strategies rather than physical things. There are definitely other influences I could talk about.

Community is definitely one of those things, in the form of MRGS, Pixelles, and TAG. I could also talk about the specific designers who had an impact on the way that I make games, or who made me feel like I had permission to make “weird” games any which way I chose — like Pippin Barr, who taught the Curious Games Studio (my first “formal” game design class). I could also talk about specific tools, and their affordances, and what they encouraged me to make, and what I learned from them. I will eventually talk about the three years that I spent my summers doing Critical Hit, first as a participant, then as an assistant, then as a co-director. These were definitely very formative experiences.

More on this as my autoethnography continues!

Global Game Jam 2018: transgalactica

critical making, game jams, Process Writing

For Global Game Jam 2018, I took on a local organizational role to make sure that things could run smoothly when our creative director, Gina Hara, was having her film, Geek Girls, launch in theatres on the same day. Nevertheless, the jam was relatively hands-off except for keeping an eye on the space, once I had made announcements, played the keynote, and helped a few people form teams. That meant that I had a fair bit of time to work with Squinky (Dietrich Squinkifer) on a project. Jammers rarely take my advice, but I never work in teams largely than three for a jam project, if I can avoid it, and in fact, two has been an even more ideal number of late for me, when working with Squinky. This year, the theme of the jam was “transmission”, and since Squinky and I are both nonbinary trans people, we decided that we absolutely wanted to make a game with trans themes and content.

We scoped tightly but ambitiously, aiming to write, record and subtitle a number of original texts as well as finding and editing other audio to fill out our soundscape. It’s rare that I work with narrative or writing-heavy projects for a jam, so I was actually quite pleased that things worked out so well this time. I think that what was helpful was that I was able to write what was working in the moment, and discard the ideas that weren’t, and that I didn’t have to sustain any of the pieces for very long. Since the narrative for our game was that the player was meant to follow a trail of radio station-style broadcasts, each piece was distinct and self-contained, but also working with larger themes related to identity, acceptance, and frustration, with a healthy dose of humour thrown in. That was helpful in terms of the writing. There were a couple of more serious, more explicitly personal pieces that I might have liked to be able to write and include for the project, but I couldn’t get that kind of writing done in the jam context, so rather than getting stuck on that, I wrote several pieces simultaneously, moving around when I got stuck.

When jamming, one core challenge is to on-goingly check in and understand your teammates’ needs and negotiate each other’s expectations — in our case, our schedules didn’t necessarily match up, since Squinky is a bit of a night owl, and I had to be at the jam relatively early to watch the space as one of the organizers. I would have preferred that we could be at the jam space at the same time and spend as much time as we could on the project (although I always make sure to have 8 hours of sleep a night during jams, regardless of what’s happening) — but I understood Squinky’s needs. Similarly, Squinky was concerned about the scope of the writing and audio involved in the game, given the jam context, but once we had gotten started, I really wanted to foreground the writing and audio and work with a distinct gated narrative, so I pushed for it.

The jam went smoothly on the whole!

I used my Zoom H2n for the first time, and am super pleased with how easy it is to use and how good the sound quality it produces is. In the end, we got it all done, including writing and recording an original theme song. In the end, we got it all done, only to discover during the first few minutes of playtesting that some of the audio was accidentally skipped because it was triggered when people accidentally passed the right station very quickly. Since Squinky isn’t big on crowds and there was a lot of potential for sensory overload, they decided to go somewhere quiet and add a delay as to how much of the audio had to be played from a story-related clip before the player could move on to the next. That prevented any accidental speed-running of the game.

I am super glad with how the project turned out and I feel very good about the trans-positive content that I wrote. Squinky is a very resourceful programmer too, which really allowed us to push that extra little bit to make the game feel right.

The github repository for the project is here.

You can play the game here <3. If you do, please feel free to let us know what you think on twitter (our handles are in the credits at the end of the game).

GGJ 2017: Some Thoughts on rustle your leaves to me softly

adventures in gaming, critical making, game jams, Process Writing, research

rustle your leaves to me softly

It seems wrong to call this a postmortem given that the project was just born on the weekend and involves living creatures, so instead I’ll call these “some thoughts.”

Plants, wow! Plants are amazing! I’ve been thinking of plants as an example of an “other” that could be helpful in conceptualizing designs’ for entities besides the standard human user ever since some conversations last year with Ida Toft. Donna Haraway’s writings are especially relevant here, but here’s an easy-to-digest BBC article about plants and their various sensory abilities and complexities that might serve as an introduction to the subject.

I’ve just recently started to split my time between here and Fort McMurray, Alberta. As a result, I had been talking with Squinky about making a plant that people in our lab could take care of that would signal their care to me far away through the internet. To that end, I had ordered things for a tweeting plant project , so I had a sparkfun redboard, some breadboards, some moisture sensors, and some other odds and ends for working with plants.

It was only after I had ordered these parts that TAG’s local diversifier for Global Game Jam 2017, Sustainability, was announced. As part of this diversifier, one of this year’s TAG Global Game Jam co-organizers, Liane, acquired a bunch of plants. Our brainstorm quickly turned to what we could make with these plants, and I don’t regret it.

Initially, we were supposed to have a third team member, Six, but unfortunately, after the initial brainstorm, they weren’t feeling up to jamming. I just wanted to make sure to highlight their contributions to our conversation, which sent us down some interesting rabbit holes that ultimately lead to us making what I think is a really cool experience. It’s called “rustle your leaves to me softly” and it is an ASMR Plant Dating Simulator. I’ll try to take you through some of our process in this post.

This year’s theme was “Waves.” We began to talk a lot about soundwaves and Squinky half-jokingly mentioned ASMR — I of course wrote this down on our brainstorm. We began to brainstorm around the idea of an “ASMRchestra” played by touching various plants. Six suggested a more intimate relationship with one plant, with more varieties of interaction, including flex sensors, touch, sound detection which would activate sound and LEDs on the plant, possibly in an intimate space like the tent.

After Six let us know that they wouldn’t be jamming with us, Squinky and I had to scope the design in a bit more tightly to accomplish our work with two people instead of three. As we experimented with the simplest version of what the game could be, we discovered that rather than just being a switch, the redboard could detect consistent/predictable ranges of resistance when hooked up as a button (with a ground, a resistor, and a plain wire). With a strong enough resistor, the ranges of numbers we were receiving varied consistently with softer and firmer touches, and a variety of touch locations (as well as on the person doing the touching – some people are more conductive than others, based on their skin moisture).

The ASMRchestra and the more focused single-plant experience were both still possible avenues of exploration, but we didn’t determine right away which we wanted to do. Instead, Squinky focused on the programming, both physical and digital, of the Arduino, determining how things should be connected up, and programming a system that would let us detect the variations in resistance, and play sounds accordingly. They massaged the feel of the interaction with different numbers and adjusted how sounds faded in and out based on those numbers. They found and implemented what we would need to achieve fine grain control over the sound.

Meanwhile, I began to research ASMR more closely, writing down common traits of the voices and sounds that I was hearing, including what kind of sound combinations were common. Here are some of my notes:

Overall, the ASMR community seems to think that everyone can experience ASMR and it’s just a matter of finding the right triggers. That means that there is a huge variety of possible triggers. What helped us focus in on the kind of ASMR we would be creating was the notion of a reciprocal relationship between human and plant. The human inputs caresses, touches, and other inputs (such as blowing wind across the plant’s surface, or speech) and the plant, in this narrative, responds to the touches that it appreciates by outputting an ASMR soundscape that it hopes will be pleasing to the human. Respect for the ASMR community was important for us, despite what might be considered the inherent absurdity of humans and plants in a sensual relationship like this one (I don’t think it’s all that ridiculous – we are intimately linked to our environment). We wanted our attempts at ASMR to be sincere, despite our limited time to work on it.

While Squinky worked on programming, I took up asset creation, including physical crafting. My first task was to select robust plant specimens that would be the least likely to be harmed by our touches as long as we were respectful (I chose one plant with waxy leaves and several succulents).

Next, I worked on building controllers/homes for our chosen plants using ceramic cups, river rocks, dirt, copper tape, wire, electrical tape, and screws. The copper tape on the outside of the cup was a convenient and aesthetically pleasing place to put the ground, as people could grasp the cup to steady the plant as they touched it. With Ida Toft’s advice, we used the fact that both the plants and the earth in their pots contained moisture and were conductive to avoid attaching anything to the plants themselves. The screw provided a large contact that I could simply plant in the earth.

As usual, a jam involving a good deal of crafting meant that I took several trips to the Dollarama to find and repurpose objects there for the project. We decided early on that we wanted to avoid using screens as much as possible if we could, so, with that in mind, I made sure that what there was to look at instead (the plants, the electronics, the instruction booklet, the housing for the electronics, the table where the game would be played at) would look as unified and as pleasing as possible. Aesthetics when people won’t be completely focused on a screen are important (and of course I’d argue that they’re important in general, with or without screens). Right before the playtest, I found a quiet spot and decorated it with a green tablecloth, setting up just what was needed to play our game on the table. It was a bit removed from the rest of the space since audio was important to the game. I made signs to lead players to the game that said things like “4 plants in your area looking to meet” and the name of our game and team (we were “TEAM TINY CACTUS,” by the way – everytime Squinky and I work on a new project together, we give ourselves a new team name).

By Saturday evening, we knew that our game was no longer ASMRchestra, despite that being an excellent pun name. I was concerned that hooking up all the plants up at once would discourage people from discovering their individuality, that it would instrumentalize them in more ways than one: that people would cease to see them as living creatures and see them just as controllers, and that they would just try to play them as instruments simply making sounds instead of responding to the feedback they were receiving. The relationship between each plant and human, with the human taking the time to discover their differences, became an important part of how I was thinking about the game. We retreated to the jam space’s campground (complete with tent) to figure out a new name for our game. Names are important, because they’re conceptual tools — they help me figure out how to think about a game. As we giggled to each other in the intimacy of the tent, we settled on “rustle your leaves to me softly” – it immediately suggested something that we hadn’t considered before: poetry.

For me, this was the missing piece of the ASMR script. I would write a poem that could be randomized, line by line, from the plant’s perspective. We recorded the poem and other sets of words that night. Here are the word sets and the lines of the poem.

Sunday morning, I worked on the instructions and on creating housing for our electronics. The instruction booklet is another example of functionality and aesthetics combined. Using a book from the Dollar store as a base, I had to remove the metal spiral because I’m left-handed and planned to handwrite the instructions inside. I replaced the spine with twine, and painted the name of the game on the cover. crafted the book itself and the instructions to go in it. With safety of plants in mind. Respect for plants and their safety became a key concern for us. As I wrote the instructions, I realized that the plants already had built-in personalities based on their physical properties and their needs in terms of physical safety. As I wrote the instructions, I had to translate their needs and suggest interactions into the language of dating profiles. Here are what the instructions looked like:

You can read the full instructions here, including more plant dating profiles.

The conceptual thought behind the game is rather twisty. As designers, we were trying to take on the perspective of plants, thinking in ways that we thought a plant might think, where the plant in question was trying to conceive what a human would appreciate most from them, without understanding just what a human was, and thus thinking of it in plant terms. Based on what we decided plants would like in ASMR, the plants are then trying to please human tastes.

Since the sounds could be dropped in afterwards, collecting them and putting them into the game was one of our last tasks. I collected Creative Commons 0 attribution license ambient music tracks, water droplets, rain, rustling leaves, and other sounds (sources can get a bit tricky in the heat of a jam, so I usually use CC0 resources). Based on my notes about ASMR, Squinky and I then recorded a series of plant-related words and the individual lines of the poem that I wrote to be randomized. Squinky then figured out how to layer them beautifully, figuring out volumes and when sounds should stop and start in order for the plant to feel most responsive without the sound design being too busy.

As we playtested the game, I was surprised at the intimacy created by the experience. I was also surprised that the context was so transposed, and that the sound was working so well together, that I didn’t even mind listening to the sound of my own voice coming from a plant. It was eery and touching all at once.

The official jam playtest went well, but there were way more people that wanted to play than could be accommodated over the course of the time that we had. This was a good sign, although it was also a shame. Those who did play seemed to enjoy the game. Their first reaction was frequently laughter – I think they laughed out of surprise. Afterwards, they often got quiet, contemplative. Some seemed reluctant to stop playing, but felt the pressure of others waiting behind them to play. Some players also experienced ASMR sensations for the first time. Many seemed to discover that touching the plant felt good – and felt intimate. The textures, combined with the responsive sound, made for a pleasing sensory experience.

Thanks to the very talented Matthias Graham (@coraxincarna), who took photos and filmed for us, and Squinky, who figured out a way to record the sounds as people were playing, we were able to cut together a rough version of a video of what the experience is like — unfortunately, without the tactility and without the pleasure of that immediate connection between touch and sound — for those who haven’t had a chance to play.

We hope to set up the game at TAG sometime soon so that more folk can play it! There’s more to say, I think, about this game, but I wanted to get out a few thoughts as soon as possible after the jam before they faded away.

Speculative Play: Deep Time and the Onkalo RPG

adventures in gaming, game jams, Process Writing, research


After spending the weekend immersed in thoughts about Deep Time at the Speculative Play Deep Time jam this weekend, it turned out that my Monday night RPG/board game group didn’t have anything to play that night. During the weekend, we had watched “Into Eternity” (http://www.intoeternitythemovie.com/) and thought about Onkalo (a waste-storage facility being built 4 or 5 kilometers deep in the Finnish bedrock), as well as nuclear waste more generally. Our discussions about deep time had talked about problem of designing for someone who might or might not share the same physical attributes, sensibilities, and senses. We talked about how difficult it was for the human brain to conceptualize a 100 000-year time-span, given that our own recorded history is so short and yet older events still feel so remote. We talked about intergenerational communication and responsibility, the durability of different materials and how to communicate broad strokes in imprecise mediums – perhaps things like massively-scaled stones, or “universal” symbols like thorns or other things that might represent danger to some unknown beings. We also thought about whether such warnings would only spur on treasure-seekers, who, unconvinced of the altruism of the people sending such a message (well, altruism except in the sense of assuaging our own guilt, perhaps), might think that something valuable was being hidden from them. And, given that nuclear waste materials can be reprocessed, and that a relatively small amount of their energy is used before the material is considered waste, it might be considered valuable indeed.

Given that I am moving to Alberta fairly soon and that our membership is already becoming increasingly scattered (Guelph, NYC, Regina…), the RPG group is working on strategies for being able to continue playing when we’re apart. So far, we have had mixed results with digital play, and of course it comes with a whole host of potential challenges with regards to tech, lag, internet issues, etc. Meeting for a casual board game wouldn’t further that cause at all, and I had been itching to run a game of my own for some time. I used to run a Star Wars expanded universe campaign, but it became too much for me to manage, and so I hadn’t actually “GMed” in years — there just seemed to never be enough time. Fresh off of discussions from the weekend, I decided that, given a simple enough system (Fate Accelerated, in our case), I could indeed run a one-shot campaign on-the-fly that evening.

I decided that I would give the group very little context, asking them only to give me information about who they were as a people (human, genetically-modified/differently-evolved humans, aliens). Their constraint was that they had to be of a similar size to humans (somewhere between human-sized and elephant-sized). My primary goal was to balance feasibility and fun, and so I did have to invent and alter certain details that may not be within the realm of possibility. Admittedly, although the results of this campaign were an interesting enough way into this design problem that I am now writing about it for you here, my primary motivation was running the game in a way that would be compelling for the players. Having dedicated so much thought and consideration to Deep Time and Onkalo over the weekend made them convenient subjects for exploration, and I thought that the ideas would work well in a one-shot campaign rather than something more sustained.

The players were experienced roleplayers from different backgrounds, although all were Canadians from the East Coast (Ontario and Quebec), including a biochemist, a store manager, a researcher working with Montreal’s itinerant population, and a bank worker. Although the group usually has an even gender split, the players this time were three male-identified players and one female-identified player.

Here is what they decided about themselves, their society and their context:
The game was to taking place 90 000 years in the future. The group was part of a race of genetically-modified humans that eventually evolved further to become quite sea-mammal like — specifically, they decided that they were the Otterfolken and had large lung capacity, webbed hands and feet, oily fur to protect themselves from cold in the water. They also decided that they would have bronze-age technology (and were quite insistent that this should include Archimedes’ death ray). Their characters were part of a caravan traveling across the land, seeking trade goods. One of them was the caravan chef and mixer-of-medicines, one of them was a religious elder/prophet who had visions, one was the caravan funder, a rich otterperson who was seeking adventure, and the other was a youngling who was in charge of caring for the caravan’s animals (these pack animals were known as “Finless”). Additionally, I seeded the adventure by giving them each one piece of information that none of the other players knew: the rich caravan funder knew that there were areas on this landmass that had not yet been scavenged by other caravans, the animal-tender knew that the area they were entering had very hard bedrock and was considered very stable (not prone to natural disasters, volcanoes, flooding, etc.), the caravan cook knew that food sources were getting more scarce and the land less hospitable as they ventured onwards, and the religious leader knew that there were legends/stories told in his religion about “places that you are supposed to forget, places that no one should ever go, deep places, sacred places” and that most of these were on land.

(That tiny track and even tinier truck represent the entrance to Onkalo).

Over the course of the weekend, Rilla Khaled and I explored questions around what we ended up calling “communicative geographies” — what kinds of human-made geographies could be used to primally communicate, beyond language, that Onkalo was a place to be feared. Using plasticine (reusable modeling clay), tin foil, and plastic cups, we built a structure that was designed to surround Onkalo. We were inspired by the shape of the Hoover dam — smooth, and descending at a terrifying angle — and by the idea, brought up in “Into Eternity,” that thorns were a threatening shape, one that might potentially still be understood in 100 000 years. So, Rilla and I surrounded the entrance to Onkalo with spikes on two sides and Hoover Dam-like curves of self-healing concrete (using bacteria) (knowing that such concrete is probably not infinitely self-repairing, we still decided to imagine it as such in a speculative future), all of this on a massive scale designed to inspire feelings of the sublime in the viewer.

For the RPG, I thought about Onkalo as more of a fortress – the huge thorny spikes on the outside, and smooth, Hoover-dam inspired bowl on the inside. To make it possible for the game to proceed, I decided that at some point since their creation, one small section of the spikes had fallen or been sheared off, allowing a climbable surface in one spot, should the adventurers decide to undertake such a climb.

Additionally, I surrounded Onkalo with other safe guards, attempts at communication: obelisk-like structures (some which had collapsed) with information in every known language, and a field of flowers, genetically-engineered to recoil away from other varieties to help them grow in set patterns (and also poisonous), forming the shape of a giant pictorial radiation warning as seen in the Onkalo film. However, the warning was designed to be seen from a birds-eye view, and they could not completely discern the pattern, although that they knew there was one (until, of course, they reached the top of the ominous structure, looked back and said “Oh, no!” — but their characters didn’t understand the symbols anyhow).


As the game played out, it became clear that the players, with no context, were playing out scenarios and thinking in ways that were consistent with our discussions over the weekend. When faced with a mystery, and in the context of the RPG, their solution was to go further and solve it. When presented with ominous symbols and danger, they decided that there must be something worth protecting hidden beyond — and, in the case of one character, their primary motivation was adventure-seeking, and this definitely looked like adventure.

The fact that this all took place in the context of an RPG night can’t be overlooked. This is the metagame — the tension between player knowledge (such as knowing the symbol for radioactivity) and character knowledge. The players knew, of course, that if I was leading them towards a certain place, there would be danger. This place wouldn’t just contain a pile of treasure for them to find. And although they discussed turning back many a time, they never did. The context of the game (and perhaps the lack of real-world stakes) encouraged them to move forward rather than turn back. But is the curiosity that drove the Otterfolken to Onkalo only human?

As I slowly pulled back the curtain and they discovered maps of the space within the Onkalo archives as well as more obelisks with writing and symbols, the group seemed driven by two motivations: uncover the rest of the mystery, and act according to the characters that they had set out for themselves. Afterwards, I gave them context for their adventure, telling them about “Into Eternity,” Onkalo and the weekend’s projects and adventures.

After this foray into using RPGs to explore a design problem, I’m convinced of their potential value as a design probe, especially for the Speculative Play project. Given time and space to do so, all humans are capable of speculation.

Crossposted here and here.

Two Weeks, Two Jams: Global Game Jam 2016 and Take Care Jam

critical making, game jams, Process Writing

I’ve been meaning to write for some time now about Global Game Jam 2016 and the Take Care Jam, two jams that took place one weekend after the other (which is why I guess why I haven’t managed to write about them yet, what with the jams and the work I had to catch up on afterwards). I thought that GGJ would be an exhausting all-nighter pulling event (because it usually is) and that I would then decompress at the low-key, care-focused Take Care Jam, but that turned out not to be the case.

I arrived at Global Game Jam on Friday in time to engineer our now-traditional Game Jam Blanket Fort (ever since Pixelles Montreal ran TeaCade, we are in love with comfy time-out spots at our community events – GAMERella had a pretty excellent one, TAG’s GGJ16 location had one, and so would the Take Care Jam, as it turns out). During GAMERella, my goal is to work with a new jammer and help them have a positive first jam experience. Global Game Jam is my more selfish jam – I like to work with people that I already know and trust.

So! There were plenty of people that I knew at the jam, but it seemed like many of them were about to agglomerate into one large group. At a jam, my preference is to work in a team of three or less – maximum four. I find that it’s easier to stay within a manageable scope and to quickly find mutual game making interests. So, after some quick decision-making, I ended up working with Dietrich “Squinky” Squinkifer for the jam.

THE GAME: “Most Sincere Greetings, Esteemed One”

[You can also read Squinky’s introductory writeup about the game here.]

We scoped with a laser-focus (see what I did there?) – having a two-person team meant choosing our priorities very carefully. Exploring the jam’s theme (“Ritual”) through some quick brainstorming maps and settled on exploring the awkwardness of greetings. We chose to use as much theatricality and physicality in the game as we could, and so we hit on a game where players would be instructed to perform different greetings with one another. We made an aluminum-foil gong as a button using a Makey-Makey and had players wear the Muse headset to help set our stage. Combined with Squinky’s JavaScript/JSON/web dev skills and the Tracery library (link) to create procedurally-generated instructions, how could we miss?

By the end of the first night (we closed up shop at around midnight, having started to jam in earnest around, let’s say…6:30PM?), we basically had a working version of our game…From there, we just kept adding, polishing and giggling to ourselves about all the excellent procedurally-generated content that we were building, and doing our best to put our best foot forward on all of the items that it was possible for us to share on our game’s global game jam page: a gameplay video, a dashing team portrait, a github repository of our code, screenshots from the game, etc.



The great thing about this jam is that I went home to sleep both nights and didn’t feel any time pressure. I really enjoyed working with Squinky – we share similar senses of humour and they are a great jam partner. They’ve also got mad skills – both for making games and cookies! Our game even won an award for our prop-use.

The Take Care Jam, hosted by the Atwater Library in the context of Shanly Dixon’s Cyberviolence Against Women research, and planned and run by Stephanie Fisher and Kara Stone, is proof (much like my experience with Squinky at GGJ) that you don’t have to do a long crunch-filled jam for people to end up with interesting prototypes and ideas by the end. The weekend was filled with food breaks, multiple yoga sessions, and people just chatting and spending time with one another. We still made great things.

My team, which consisted of Nicole Pacampara and Amanda Tom (two people I was very happy to get the chance to finally work on a project with) along with honorary teammate Squinky (who fixed everything for us at the end with their mad skills and who I have already had the pleasure of working with) worked on a project about taking care of ourselves and of other people. The basic idea is that with a password-protected google form (you can see it here but I won’t tell you the password — you can ask for it if you like though – we just didn’t want people to add mean things) that creates a google spreadsheet. Using the spreadsheet as our database, we pull a random entry and display it on the Take Care Teller, which is like a fortune teller except it gives you an encouraging message or advice.

Here’s the current prototype of the Take Care Teller, hosted on Nicole’s site.

As you may have read by now, I’m learning Processing, and the amazing thing about this jam for me was realizing the literacy that learning Processing is giving me in other coding languages, too, just because there are lots of things that carry over. So, I was able to read most of our code that weekend (although I couldn’t have written it — that’ll come later, I hope).

At the end of the jam, after presenting our work to each other, we planted seeds from the Atwater Seed library (Guybrush the cat has knocked mine over already, but I will replant once he’s gone to his forever-home with Squinky — which will be soon!).

So, more on Processing soon…I’ve learned to do weird video googly-doos and plan to finish the book in the next two weeks!



Apple Rumble Available Online!

adventures in gaming, game jams, Process Writing

Hi all,

I’ve been very busy over at Tweed Couch Games with Allison and Zach (we have some sweet dev blogging going on over there), but I wanted to take a moment to remember this game.

So, I never did put this game up online, mostly because it was just a ridiculous bit of fun that I had thrown together on my own during a jam…But then I realized that this year’s pre-jam was coming up, and that the THIRD COHORT (wow, I can’t even believe that the Pixelles Incubator is in its third year!) of the Pixelles are having their showcase this week, so I decided to put up Apple Rumble on itch.io.

You can totally play it now!

My Experience at the Critical Hit Pre-Jam: Concordia Edition

adventures in gaming, critical hit, game jams, indie, Process Writing


With the Critical Hit Pre-Jam: Dawson Edition (not the official title, but how I’ve been thinking about it) slated for this weekend, I thought I’d take a little bit of time to talk about what the Pre-Jam that happened at Concordia on March 1st and 2nd was like.

This was the first time in a while that I decided to strike it out on my own without my Game of the Year teammates, Nick and Jana. I haven’t made a game completely on my own in some time (August, I think), but I felt like I needed to stretch my “programmer” wings a little bit, if only with Construct 2, which is what I decided to make my game in.

Before the jam happened, I attended narF’s excellent Construct 2 workshop and made a Flappy Bird clone that introduced me to all the basics. I was also lucky enough at the jam itself to have three Construct 2 veterans on-hand: narF, Alicia, and Charlotte, who all gave me a variety of excellent advice over the weekend.

The theme of the jam was “hybrid,” and of course my brainstorm went immediately off the rails when I started to think about the meaning of my own last name, Marcotte. “Marcottage” is, according to Wiktionary (I know, I know, it’s an excellent source), in botany, “a process of plant propagation where soil is tied onto a branch stripped of a ring of bark.” The next logical connection for me was, naturally, apples.


So, the strains of apples that we have around today are kept pure by grafting branches from older apple trees onto young trees. These grafted branches have very little chance to develop resistances to pests and other diseases. Unfortunately, that means that apples get hit with a lot of pesticides.

You know where I’m headed next, right?

Mutated apples. (I guess that it just goes to show that there are an infinite amount of places that you can take a jam theme.)

I thought, “What if the apples were bombarded with so much pesticide that some day something went horribly wrong, and the apples mutated? What if they then duked it out in my fridge?”

My Pre-Jam game, “Apple Rumble”, was born. It is probably the first and only fighting game involving apples as the main characters.

I decided to start with two characters, Granny Smith and Red Delicious. I decided to give them the ability to double-jump, defend themselves by growing protective leaf shields, move left and right, charge into each other, and bite each other. I also decided that while I wanted to show them getting increasingly physically damaged, since I was making everything for the game, including music and art and sound effects, I didn’t have the time to animate them getting more and more damaged. Instead, next to their health bars, I animated a small portrait of them getting increasingly damaged.


Scale was really important to me, because I really did want to have a finished game by the end of the weekend where I had made all the assets myself. Eventually I want to make more arenas, but I limited myself to one for the jam. For this version, I’ve made a fake character selection screen with other contenders such as “Crabapple,” “McIntosh” and “Fuji” that I’d like to learn to program and implement for real.


I got straight to work in Construct 2. Now, normally, I advocate going home to sleep during game jams, but this time I surprised myself. Somehow, I ended up working through the night. I guess that I was overcome by some kind of programmer’s adrenaline (at least, this is what narF called it when I mentioned it to him). I worked until about 5:30 in the morning, finishing the game (except for debugging and polishing). I slept until 8, had breakfast with my parents, and came back to the jam around 11 or so to polish and debug. Thankfully, people at the Dawson Jam won’t have this temptation, since the space will only be open until 9. Go home and sleep!

I also decided to work alone because it’s been so long since I have, but I think that a jam is a great place to get to know people. Working in a team also means that you can focus on one aspect of the game and make it really excellent, or focus on a new skill that you want to learn. For anyone who does feel like working alone, or for anyone else who is curious, the programs that I used for this game are:
Construct 2, which has a free version and is easy to learn, very intuitive. The free version has some limitations.
PyxelEdit, 8$, a great little program for pixel art with onion skinning and sprite sheet exporting.
TuxGuitar, free, a fun program for writing music that lets you place notes on a music sheet and then preview them with jam-appropriate midi-sounding instruments.
Audacity, also free, and when combined with FreeSound.Org or other similar sites, a very powerful tool for making sound effects quickly.

What was great about the Pre-Jam was that everyone seemed really ready to push the limits of their skills and to push into new and interesting design territory. One very interesting game combined physical cards with QR codes on them with an iPad that was set up to interact with them. The iPad kept track of the positions of the players’ resources on the screen as well as their health.

Another game involved having two players work together on the same controller in order to make different monster types to feed to another monster.

I was also especially fascinated by the game that narF and Hamish decided to make in collaboration with everyone else that was at the jam. It was a crowd-sourced Twine-based game. Twine is a free software that’s pretty easy to pick up that is really useful for creating interactive fiction. Throughout the weekend, narF and Hamish asked jammers to play their game, and once they reached the “end” (the game branches), to continue from where that ending left off. Sometimes this meant describing a character, or what would happen next in a pre-existing situation. Sometimes this meant placing objects within the world. I was lucky enough to introduce a perfectly ripe avocado into the game and describe the sheriff in the game as “not looking like Clint Eastwood at all.” I thought this was a great way to engage with other jammers and that it produced a really unique result — and that if narF or anyone else wanted to repeat the experiment, it would continue to produce unique results every time.

I hope to have Apple Rumble up soon for play, but meanwhile, enjoy these screenshots.

The upcoming jam theme is Cataclysm, and I think that it’s a very interesting theme. I’m a bit sad that I won’t be jamming with all of the excellent people that are sure to be at Dawson this weekend. Have fun, make games!

Global Game Jam 2014

adventures in gaming, game jams, indie, Process Writing

You might remember my post about Global Game Jam from last year. It was a big weekend for me! It’s the weekend that I finished my first game! (I had started work on my Pixelles game by then as well, so it’s not the first game that I started to make, but it’s the first that I finished.)

This year, I worked with my new teammates, Nick and Jana, on a game called FishSport: A Sport for Fish.

Here’s how I put it when I posted the game on my social media outlets to show it off: “A Sport for Fish? It’s FishSport! Grab four controllers and four friends and buckle in for a mixed metaphor– er, game about the future and climate change and being a fish who is good at sports.”


About Global Game Jam this year:

TAG has had a new jam coordinator for the past few months, my Critical Hit teammate Charlotte Fisher. She did an amazing job organizing this year’s jam! She and Gina, TAG’s coordinator, worked really hard to get us a great space at Concordia and great prizes and food. Foodwise, we had healthy eating options along with our pizza, plenty of caffeine, but also V8. Prize-wise, Chimera Games in NDG donated a bunch of games for us.

This jam is the first jam where I actually stayed and slept overnight, since I usually drag myself home on the last bus or walk home. TAG’s couches were more comfortable than I thought.

This is also the first jam that my brother, Michael J. Marcotte, participated in. I was so happy to share the experience with him! The game won a silver honour and we gave him the prize since it was his first jam.

All in all, a good jam!

GAMERella: The Making of “Eat Dirt!”

adventures in gaming, game jams, indie, Process Writing


This weekend I cleared my work as best I could, ignored everything else and showed up to Concordia to participate in GAMERella, a game jam for girls, first-time jammers, and first-time game-makers. You can read more about it here.

Before the jam, Nick Kornek and I decided to pair up, then show up at the jam and invite one person who had never, ever made a game or done a jam into our team. We had an idea of what we wanted to do ahead of time, but we were also prepared to be flexible and hear new ideas. Another goal that I had was to make that person’s jam as welcoming and awesome as possible.

Friday night, we found the third member of our team: Jana Sloan Van Geest. She was interested in game narrative and willing to work on our idea. Naturally, after I gave her a quick tutorial on how to use audacity, we had her do the sound design for the game. Luckily, it turned out that she was a natural! The sound for the game is great!

The resulting game, after 48 hours of work minus sleep, is called “Eat Dirt!” and I am extremely proud of what we were able to accomplish in just one weekend. Nick programmed it, I made the art assets, and Jana made the sound. This is the first time while working in a team that I have been solely responsible for all art assets.

The idea came during the sound and pyxel workshop that TAG and Critical Hit held in anticipation of the Jam on Monday. We were on break and I turned to Nick and said the equivalent of “Ha, ha, Nick, the theme is alchemy. Wouldn’t it be funny if we made a game about composting?”

Nick came back to me two days later and said the equivalent of “let’s make Tetris meets Dig-Dug meets…”

And then we waited… and I did homework and I don’t know what Nick did, probably work and homework…and then Friday came and it was time to jam.

This game jam made me realize how far I’ve come as a gamemaker since I started in January, less than a year ago. This is the seventh game that I’ve made and I never realized how much knowledge I had acquired until it came time to impart it. I taught Jana how to use Audacity and very briefly showed her about Pyxel, the pixel art animation tool that I made all our art assets in.

Jana used mostly sounds from FreeSound.Org as well as a tool called “Otomata” to create our sound and music. She took to it so naturally that, during the playtesting, people asking about the sound design. They would never have guessed that this was her first time doing sound design. I feel extremely happy to have helped someone through their first jam – Jana said she had a blast and it feels great to encourage new game creators the same way that I was encouraged during my first jam.

The game creation went so smoothly that I hardly understand it. I would love to work with Jana and Nick again – and I will! We are looking to port the game for the Arcade Royal and create at least two new modes: “Two Worms, One Compost” and “4-player Coop Versus” (two worms to a composter, cooperatively eating against two other worms in another composter). We’re putting the game jam version up online (here’s a link) but we may eventually distribute this as a full-fledged indie game.


My recommendation is to plug your computer or laptop up to a TV using a HDMI cable, get a USB keyboard, and have one person play on the laptop keyboard and one on the USB keyboard. At TAG, we were lucky enough to be able to project the game onto the wall and have two USB keyboards to hook up to my computer.

The Playtesting for this game was some of the most energetic that I’ve ever experienced as a gamemaker. The cherry on the sundae (and the Sunday, since that was when the playtesting happened) was Nick’s e-sport commentary. It was hilarious, energetic, and really made the game come alive. I’m going to suggest an “e-sport commentary track” which can be toggled on or off.

Actually, “Eat Dirt!” went so well that it took top honours during the judging!

Here are some nice things about GAMERella:

– Nine playable games got made.
– The ratio of men to women was almost fifty-fifty (this is unheard-of in game-making).
– According to informal polling, one-third of people at the Jam were making their first game.


P.S: if you are a woman who would like to make her first game but isn’t sure how, the Pixelles Incubator II is now accepting applications. Or, contact TAG or myself and we’d be happy to point you towards some great resources.